Big Bill Broonzy is perhaps one of the more underrated of the old Delta Blues singers and players of the 1920s up to about the ’40s or the ’50s. He doesn’t have the myth of a Robert Johnson or the tough-as-nails backstory of Leadbelly, but what he does have is a damn good sense for how to phrase and play his songs. Big Bill Broonzy was one of the few acoustic blues artists who was around both in the South during the ’20s and ’30s and later in Chicago in the ’40s and ’50s when electric blues was beginning to take off. This album, recorded in 1951 and 1952 though not released until much later, showcases how his music sits between both worlds in many ways.
While he may be accompanied by none other than his acoustic guitar, Big Bill has an incredible sense of rhythm. His playing grooves and shuffles, much like the burgeoning electric bands of the era but of course, Big Bill doesn’t have them behind him. Listen to “Baby Please Don’t Go”, how Big Bill slinks and grooves along to the rhythm. Plenty of the acoustic bluesmen just ignored such notions of timing and metre, instead just changing chords and singing the next line whenever they damn well felt like it. Broonzy on the other hand, keeps to the rhythm. You can sense it. You can dance to it.
His voice too is quite soulful. He lacks the lonesome whine of a Robert Johnson or the shat-on, spat-on grit of a Son House, but oh boy, can he belt one out. There’s a wonderful clarity and passion to the man’s voice. His pained calls in “Low Down Blues”, the powerful declarations of “Stand Your Test in Judgement”, and the bellowing rabble-rousing of “John Henry” (incidentally, one of my favourite songs about the mythical train-worker), his singing is a towering pillar on which his music hangs much of his power.
This record’s main problem is the same problem with so many other acoustic blues records. It’s repetitive, with most of the songs following the 12-bar blues pattern that we’ve all heard so often. There are a couple of complete duds, especially the rambling “Hey! Bud Blues”, but the album is at its strongest when Big Bill takes on songs outside of the 12-bar blues pattern. Hence, the spirituals “Stand Your Test in Judgement” and “Down by the Riverside” are highlights, as is the aforementioned “John Henry”, and the soulful “When Did You Leave Heaven”. Of the many blues artists rediscovered in the 60s and onwards, Big Bill Broonzy is one of the best, and you’d be hard pushed to go wrong with just about any half-decent compilation or reissue of his.